To the Barricades
The Guardian, 26 July 2001
Where could be no better moment than now to show Medium Cool, which examines the role of the media against a backdrop of violent clashes between police and demonstrators. In the wake of Genoa, Seattle, Quebec and Gothenburg, Haskell Wexler’s 1969 film seems ominously knowing. Made during the 1968 Chicago Democratic convention, which ended in violence and conspiracy charges for the leaders of anti- Vietnam war demonstrations, Wexler’s film was received with great critical acclaim at the time, but had to battle against both overt and covert censorship and an unfriendly distribution system. Now, more than 30 years on, it will receive a special showing at this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival, along with a documentary about the making of the movie.
The film explores, in greater detail than had been seen before in American film, the television news-gathering process: the way news decisions are made, how stories have to be fitted into neat little holes regardless of facts or context. Its protagonist, played by Robert Forster, is a hunky, self-confident television news reporter who gradually realises for whom and what he is working. Wexler used the real demonstrations as a counterpoint to his hero. Since then, the film has been inescapably associated with that period and those politics.
Wexler, now 74, is in Chicago acting as a representative of his film industry union when I track him down. He is clearly delighted that the film is being shown again; it will also come out as a DVD shortly. Wexler may have won Oscars as a cinematographer for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Bound For Glory in the 1960s and 1970s, but, during his long and distinguished career, he has also been active as a documentary-maker, producer and social commentator. The link, he says, between the Chicago demonstrations and the recent disturbances in Genoa is that they both involved the coalescence of diverse groups. “The Chicago convention was a pivotal point for big sections of American society. Since the Democratic Party did not recognise what was going on, it erupted in theatre – I was going to say in violence, but really it was theatre. The hippies and the Yippies [members of a radical anti-Vietnam group] knew that if you give the media a show they’ll be there. The big difference at the conventions now is that they have sections cordoned off for demonstrators where you can go and jump up and down with your sign and the media can film it.”
Wexler watched his film again three months ago. “It struck me that it is a film that lives in a specific time and a specific space, which we seldom get in theatrical films,” he says. It is certainly time-specific in some ways: there are Jean-Paul Belmondo and Bobby Kennedy posters, hula hoops and music by the Mothers of Invention. Wexler also feels that the film was, for its time, subversive. It suggested, for instance, that the FBI uses news footage to identify “radicals” and employs members of the media – which is now taken for granted. “Young people were the enemy at the time,” says Wexler. “People on my crew with long hair and beards or even in tennis shoes couldn’t go into restaurants in Chicago; they would get thrown out. Two of the actresses were detained for prostitution – just because they were walking down the street and were good-looking and young. It was just harassment. Young people now can’t conceive of a time when all the media referred to the anti-war people as weirdos, as a separate race.”
So had the film run into problems with Paramount, which handled distribution, at the time? “Are you kidding?” comes the reply. Attempts to cut and censor went on for months and the film was eventually released with a certificate that meant that no young people could see it. That wasn’t the only problem with the studio. The film also caused anxiety because it contains a playful love scene, complete with male nudity. Wexler himself stripped off to direct the scene out of solidarity with the actors. What is particularly powerful about Medium Cool is the way it deals with the media’s coverage of race, highlighted in a scene when the news team are doing a story – based on a true incident – about a black driver who hands in $10,000 he finds in his cab. There is an angry confrontation between the cabbie’s black friends and the white news crew. “You can’t just walk in out of your arrogance and expect things to be as they are,” one of the friends tells the journalists. “You are the exploiters, you are the ones who distort and ridicule and emasculate us… And that ain’t cool.”
The film had other lasting effects besides changing perceptions of the media. Jay Cocks, then a film reviewer for Time magazine, which had given Medium Cool a very enthusiastic review, met Wexler and asked about the young starring actress, Verna Bloom. Wexler arranged an introduction and they later married. “That part worked!” he says. Wexler also recalls that Abbie Hoffman, one of the eight people charged with conspiracy for organising the demonstrations, later came to visit him in New York when he was making a commercial. Hoffman asked Wexler to come with him that very night, assuring him that he’d be able to shoot the documentary of a lifetime. Wexler said no – probably a smart move, as Hoffman was about to go on the run and spent the next few years hiding from the FBI.
Recently, Wexler has been working on a black comedy that will feature footage of Fidel Castro and the Pope in Cuba. Apart from acting as a union delegate in Chicago, he is taking the opportunity to look at locations for a possible television film, set in 1948 in a black housing project. His most recent full-length documentary, Bus Rider’s Union, charts the progress of Los Angeles’s public transport activists. He also shot some footage for Ken Loach‘s Bread and Roses, which opened earlier this summer.
Wexler says that he is always surprised when people with cameras come up to him and say that Medium Cool has inspired them. At the time of making it, he says, he was “thoroughly influenced by Godard” and he is interested in the recent re-emergence of older film directors in Europe, something that he hopes will now happen in the US. “I think there is a tremendous amount of dormant talent in Hollywood, a whole bunch of people who are neither doddering nor have Alzheimer’s and who are just overlooked. I consider myself among them – I’m struggling.”
© Duncan Campbell/The Guardian
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